I like the holidays because of less traffic and more regard for humanity. It is a season of forced cheerfulness and giving; a month of good deeds to repay eleven months worth of self-absorption. A time of self-reflection. These are my thoughts as I walk drunkenly down the expressway at 4 am on New Year’s Eve. I cling onto my bottle of sepe and pause to feel the breeze brush my face as vehicles speed past me. The night feels surreal, and there is something poetic in the air as I look up to the stars. I hear the soft whispers of angels calling, but also feel hell’s heat prickle my neck.
The words come out barely as a whisper but it holds the weight of a grand escape. I look around and buildings blur into one another, street light poles bend horizontally as the roads extend into an endless stretch, and cars fade into fast moving lights. I blink and the bridge appears clearly. I take it as a heavenly sign and stagger eagerly towards it. The stairs feel endless, and my legs often cave into my imbalance. I get to the center of the bridge out of breath and I hear a siren going off in my head. I watch a trailer speed its way towards me then disappear underneath me, almost like magic surrounds me. I down the remaining contents of my bottle and jump on top the handrail, wondering if a portal to hell would open as I fall. I wonder if the world will miss me and if this will make her come back. My death might just be my saving grace.
I see a trailer in a far off distance and I close my eyes, counting the seconds I need. Thirty-nine…Twenty-eight… Fifteen…Sev- Then I feel it, the warm sweaty hands I am too familiar with. I open my eyes and there she is.
“Sheila,” I smile. I am impressed that I can make out her heart-shaped face in the dark.
“You dey craze? Which kind rough play be this?” She is still holding onto me and I feel my fingers slipping off the rails. My stomach turns and I suddenly feel light headed. I lean onto her as she pulls me down roughly, causing both of us to land on our backs because of my weight.
“Which kind rough play be this?” She repeats as she stands up, brushing off dirt while examining her skin. I am still on the ground, mesmerized by the moving stars. I try to count but it triggers a headache, and I cannot make sense of her words, so all I do is call out her name a thousand times over till I feel a wave of nausea overcome me. I turn to the side and pour out my guts onto the concrete. I turn over feeling more lightheaded than ever, with vomit hanging out the side of my mouth. She stands over me and I make out the scowl on her rigid face. My vision fluctuates between vivid and blurred, but still, I mumble her name till it is a barely audible, incoherent set of letters. It is in between this shift I see her face clearly enough to know that the heart shape was an illusion. She is not my Sheila, and rage floods through my bloodstream. I jump up angrily, despite no stamina.
“You are not Sheila.” I stammer and burp, waving a finger in her face as I try to keep still.
“No, and you are not normal.” She slaps my hand aside.
“I want Sheila,” I whisper while searching around frantically. She was here, I know it. But how could she have disappeared just like that? I call out her name, I cry and scream but Sheila never calls out back. So, I run for the rails but the woman wraps her hands around my waist immediately, trying to hold me back. I try to shake her off but she resists.
“Just let me go, please. I just want to- want to die.” I cry, but this woman still will not let me go. This is how we are for a while- a tug of war of me begging and her not letting go; the sound of running engines and car horns in the air while the ground beneath us vibrates from the weight of passing trailers.
It feels like I can feel the heartbreak all over again. Like I am being tossed into the exact moment I learnt of her betrayal and more so, the moment I realized she was gone. Let me go, I whisper with tears streaming down my face. Surprisingly, she concedes. She lets go and steps back, arms folded with a distraught look on her face. I suddenly feel unprepared for this, like her restraint was part of the process and letting go was some false sense of betrayal. Now the roads beneath me seem scary and I feel open. Her arms had felt like a shield for too long and without it, I feel vulnerable. I look down and measure the fall, and now It seems almost impossible.
“You want to die, abi? Oya, jump.” She says. I stand there silently sniffing and sulking; one leg in and the other leg out- a kiss of death on one cheek and the breath of life on the other.
“You want to kill yourself over woman, abi? Oya, be going.” She mocks. I take my leg slowly off the rail and step back. I suddenly feel empty and imagine if this is all vanity. I turn to her and I see her face clearly for the first time. She is tall and dark skinned, on her head sits a dead, artificial weave the colour of rust and tar. She is wearing a bright red tank that fits like a hanger because her prominent toned arms pour out like the misplaced sleeves of a shirt. On her hips sit a cream fanny pack that hang over her green shorts.
“Thank you,” I grumble, feeling ashamed.
“Big man like you. how you take get here sef?” She asks, searching around as if the answer will reveal itself.
“My car- it is somewhere off the express,” I mumble, feeling weary of my inebriation as I walk away.
“Let me help you.” She offers, running towards me as she places my arm over her shoulder. It was then I caught a whiff of her cheap perfume. We find my car somewhere off the express, its hazard lights ushering our way to it. She insists on driving and after that, the lights go out.
I wake up with the sunlight in my eyes, at the backseat of my car with a pounding headache. I tumble out of the car to find myself in a junkyard- a wasteland of tall piles of scrap that melt into a metal river bed of rubbish, with weeds poking through for release. The yard overlooks a murky lagoon, overflowing from a battle between plastic waste and water hyacinths. I find her seated on top my car bonnet, smoking a cigarette.
“Welcome.” She says, tossing her cigarette as she jumps off my car. On her feet are worn out pink trainers, and her eyes are a light shade of brown haunted by heavy bags, on a gaunt face dented with hollow cheekbones.
“Shakirat.” She holds out her hand to me and I eye it cautiously before taking it.
“Emmanuel,” I say. She pulls out her hand abruptly and walks away slowly, kicking stones, metal scraps and worn out rubber.
“What are we doing here?” I ask, looking around at the god-forsaken junkyard.
“Woman. You wan kill yourself on top woman?” She says without looking up, ignoring my question. I stiffen upon hearing the disappointment and disgust in her voice.
“Can we not talk about that? Just give me my keys and I will be going. Thank you very much for your help.”
Silence follows except for the rustle of leaves, and clank of metal, as a soft breeze sweeps through the junkyard. Her shoulders start to shake and she lets out a loud laugh, placing her hands on her hips. She looks at me and mimics my accent.
“Upon all this your oyibo grammar, you still wan kill yourself on top ashewo.” She laughs.
“My keys, please.” My impatience was getting the best of me. She laughs then brings out the keys from her fanny pack. She holds it out for me to see, then smiles as she places it in her bra.
“Wa gba.” She teases before walking away.
She walks over to the lagoon front and sits on an old tyre, fiddling with a silver plated lighter embellished with coloured rose thorns entwined on a wooden cross.
“You know what, I’ll just walk home.”
“Where you tink say you dey? Where you tink say you fit waka reach?” she scoffs and I look around. I run my hands through my head, feeling exasperated. I walk towards her and she holds out a cigarette to me.
“I don’t smoke.” I wave her hand away and I feel her eyes roll to the back of her head as she places the same cigarette between her chapped, tobacco stained lips.
“So?” She mumbles while struggling to light the cigarette.
“I didn’t try to kill myself because of a girl, okay? It’s been a tough year and a particularly tough week.” I sigh. She looks at me, exhaling a cloud of smoke onto my face then looks away.
“Oooh, this man. I resemble person wey like summary? No be summary I want, give me full gist abeg.” She laughs.
“My mother died at the beginning of this year, I lost a lot of money, then I lost my job a couple of months back; then my fiancée and girlfriend of 6 years, left me for an old classmate.”
“Eeya, fuel don finish?” She says and I clench my fists, feeling the sun slowly rinse off every ounce of patience left in me.
I stay silent, refusing to be ridiculed any further. She laughs and gathers small rocks into her palm. She stands up and throws them into the lagoon, watching them sink with a satisfied look in her eyes.
“Emmanuel, what’s your story?” She says calmly in a different tone, her eyes fixed on the nothingness ahead of us. Her perfect English always catches me off-guard because her intonations and diction sound refined, and the opposite of what she leads with. I watchi her body language closely and this time I catch a glimpse of a side that makes me wonder if her act is all a facade, but to what end? She looks at me with a knowing smile, as if she can read my mind and I step back.
“Wetin dey pursue you?” She laughs, settling back into her familiar self.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble. Just give me my keys, please?” I beg, and she laughs again.
She walks around me and heads for a heap of junk. At the bottom lies a battered old teddy bear. From the parts not covered in wet dirt, I notice that it is ash-colored, with one eye gone and the left side of its head has been bitten off by some wild animal. She takes the teddy and studies it like artwork.
“It’s interesting how we find beauty in ruins.” She smiles at me, in the same polished tone as before. She sounds like a completely different person, and I doubt i can ever get used to the switch.
“It’s always such a sad picture and their pain just screams out to you, you know? Have you ever stopped to look at the burnt remnants of something? What of a collapsed building? Okay, look at this teddy bear for instance, what do you see?” She holds it out to me and I step back, but she urges me forward.
“Uhm, neglect, shame, rejection?”
“Yes!” She screams victoriously, but her eyes are still fixed on me, urging me to go on. I feel compelled to oblige her, but her sorry excuse of pseudo-deepness is starting to wear me out, so I walk away.
“I call this place the ‘reject’ hideaway.” She says from the top of a small heap of dirt.
“a.k.a. A junkyard.” I say matter-of-factly.
“Unless you consider yourself junk?” She says and then I pause.
“This is the land of the lost, forgotten and unwanted. I also call it a place of second chances.”
“You’re delusional.” I spit and she goes silent, visibly hurt. She walks towards me and looks me in the eye for a long minute, nose flared out like an angry bull. Her anger is so enthralling that I do not see it coming when she lands a lightning slap on the left side of my face. There is a resounding echo in my left ear that overcomes the pain and pinched feeling in my cheek.
“Come with me.”
We pass tall heaps of junk and broken down cars. I notice an old man seated underneath a tree, reading a newspaper while a shoemaker works on his sandals. A one legged woman steadies herself with a stick as she tries to sort through a pile of plastic junk. She senses my eyes on her and looks up with a smile. I jump and shiver on noticing her one eye and half-complete dentition.
‘That one? Rumour has it that she is a witch. She probably flies at night and is one of the many crows that cry and rummage through our junk at night.’ Shakirat says without looking at me. A green bungalow with a rusty brown roof appears in a nearby distance. There are plastic chairs and tables placed outside the verandah and the beaded curtain at the entrance sways along with the breeze. The tall palm trees in the background and worn-out tyres scattered around the front yard form a strong aesthetic. As we approach the building, Shakirat yells out the name, Malik.
We stop right outside the verandah and a tall, hefty man appears behind the curtains. In the darkness of his home, I see his dark green, almond-shaped eyes and as he comes forward into the light, I see a scanty goatee and a shiny bald head. He walks up to Shakira with a mean look in his eyes while eyeing me simultaneously. Surprisingly, he pulls her into a tight hug- the type of hug you give to an old friend that feels like home.
The bungalow turned out to be Malik’s home, which also serves as a local canteen and bar. Inside, the walls are painted a lighter shade of green, with a horizontal strip of black running through them. There are strobe lights hanging from the ceiling and a small television caged up in a corner. He serves us two bottles of big stout and roasted bush-meat and I eat with my heart’s content. He sits with us and I watch as they converse in a language I have never heard before, with shades of blue and red hitting their faces at timely intervals.
“Haba, this guy. Big man like you and see how you come fall my hand, how woman go take slap you like that?” Malik says to me out of nowhere and I feel the life drain out of my body, dying of embarrassment.
“You think say this one sabi anything?” Shakirat teases and they both laugh. A part of me feels emasculated, but I gulp my ego down with stout and pray for this nightmare to be over. Malik leaves us eventually, and I notice the lights dim.
‘How do you know him?’ I nodded at the bulky frame walking away from us.
‘I found him.’ She says nonchalantly without offering more. There is reggae music playing in the background and I hear the flick of Shakira’s lighter as the blue light hits her this time around.
“That’s an interesting lighter. Where did you get it from?” By interesting, I mean expensive.
“It was my husband’s. I took it when I killed him.” She laughs, before choking on her own smoke. I cough out my beer, spilling it all over my shirt and stunned into silence.
“You should see the look on your face right now.” She coughs and laughs. It fades out as she picks up a table knife and studies it with much intrigue.
“No one talks about how easy it is to kill, no one gives you the courtesy of a warning. Do you know how easily knife cuts through flesh? How messy blood is? Because it spurts everywhere. The best part is that it gets easier after your first kill; the guilt washes away with every life you steal.” Her voice trails off and she seems to be lost in thought, warped in a time loop of sad memories. I start to think of my escape, concluding that I was dealing with a mentally deranged woman. I look back at her to find her eyes on me, then she places a hand on top of mine, and I flinch.
“Ahn now, calm down. Na play I dey play.” She laughs and I sigh in relief. Her eyes are still on me and she goes into several bouts of laughter that sound pretty convincing.
“Take it easy.” I move to pat her back and she waves me off. After a while, she stops to catch her breath.
‘I found Malik rummaging through trash. He was much younger then and hunger was the only thing he had known all his life.’ She says while watching Malik wipe glasses across the room.
‘His mother had abandoned him when he was barely a day old. He was found crying in a dump, right before pigs were about to nibble on his fragile little head. He was taken in by a family that could barely feed their own and when he was old enough, they tossed him into the streets to fend for himself.’ I notice her eyes start to water, but she clears her throat. ‘He is a good man.’ She says fondly and I stare at Malik, his eyes meet mine and he smiles. I try to imagine the bulky man as a bony child suffering from malnutrition, and it seems almost impossible.
‘My husband had also known what it was like to be hungry and poor, that’s why he would punish me if I let one grain of rice waste. He would bash my head into a wall, kick my sides continuously as he warned me never to waste food again; and those were the good days. On the bad days, he would strip me naked in the backyard and riddle my back with koboko while asking me to remind him of why I was being punished. I was just sixteen.’ I sink deeper into my seat, feeling uncomfortable.
‘One time, he told me to prepare a soup I had never heard of before. After tasting it, he poured the entire pot on my head and beat me for making him waste food. He did the same to his other wives, but he always said I was the useless one. One night, I saw him raping one of his adolescent daughters while her mother sat outside weeping. He had forced himself on me many nights, including our wedding night but it was sickening to see him do that to his own flesh and blood.’ Someone walks in, Shakirat goes quiet and suspense hangs in the air. It is the same woman from earlier, I watch her limp across the room to meet Malik who welcomes her with a smile and a cup of palm wine as if he had prior knowledge of her arrival.
‘I found out I was pregnant, and the wives would tease me that I was having a girl because of my symptoms, and the way my body was transforming. I would cry all night begging God to take the child back because I didn’t want her to suffer. I had seen this man order for his daughters to be mutilated, then sell them off once they get their first period. Eventually, I sat in a corner one night, legs spread out with a bent hanger as my only tool. I bled till I passed out and on recovering, this man beat me and his wives shamed me for being a baby killer.’ She pauses to take a gulp from her bottle.
‘I was never the same after that. I think I lost my mind actually because one night I just walked into his room and stabbed him in his sleep. The crazy thing is, I felt like I was possessed because I had no control. Afraid of what I had done, I set his room on fire, and then the house. I did not think of the children until it was too late. I heard one scream out to me from a window, while his siblings burnt in the background. I tried to help but I put my selfish interests first and ran. I just burnt the house down and ran for my life. I was only eighteen and you know the funny thing?’ She plays around with the lighter with a coy smile on her face. I wonder if this lighter was used to burn down the house, and if it is why she carries it around as a reminder. I look around and notice Malik and the old woman had disappeared.
‘That was just the beginning. The prologue if you may.’ This time around a red light hits her face, and it is oddly befitting in the moment.
“See ehn, I was just joking.” She clears her throat after a while and holds my hand reassuringly. “The guilt never goes away. Not when the smell of children’s charred flesh stays ingrained in your brain, and the taste of your own blood when you bite your tongue reminds you of how your fingers tasted for days.”
Suddenly, PHCN strikes and we are cast into complete darkness. We both sit there in awkward silence.
“I’ve been to many places and I’ve lived several lives, Emmanuel. I’ve told you one story, so tell me, Emmanuel, what’s your story?” I feel the room shift, and I hear feet and tables shuffle. I have a strange feeling we are no longer alone. I try to convince myself that it is Malik but my guts tell me otherwise. My heart is beating through my chest and I feel like I am in danger.
“Please, just let me go. I just want to go home” I say.
“What’s your story, Emmanuel?” She repeats.
“I think you’re crazy.” The words come out and even I am stunned by my audaciousness.
“Says the guy who wanted to jump off a bridge this morning.”
The lights come back on and indeed, we are still alone. Her hands are still over mine and she has a smug look on her face, like her secret is still surprisingly safe. I stand up instinctively and sprint through the curtains, not realizing that it had started raining. I run like my life depends on it, never once stopping to catch my breath, or treat the wound from a jagged piece of metal. Eventually, I find myself right in front of the lagoon, stopping just in time not to go off the edge. I catch my breath and watch the rain pour into the overflowing bank and I want to cry out because, surely, I am in hell. Feeling defeated, I turn around and find her standing behind me.
“How-” I start to say but keep quiet, wiping off the waterfall pouring from my head. I decide there is no use asking as nothing surprises me here anymore.
“I’m so sorry for scaring you off like that.” She pleads, but I turn to walk away.
“I’m just trying to get you to open up to me. I’ve done worse things and I’ve tried taking my life-“
“From what you said, you’re a bad person. I’m not. So leave me alone.” I scream, picking up an iron bar as I head for my car, ready to smash the windows, if need be. I did not pay attention to the fact that Shakirat was running after me, I was determined to leave this hellhole. I clench my fists around the ends of the bar and go charging for my driver’s seat window. I close my eyes anticipating the smash and shattering of glass, but instead, I hear a thump. I look down and surprisingly find Shakirat on the ground. The bar had collided with the side of her head instead.
Our adventure has now faded into comfortable silence. We sit quietly in my car, watching the raindrops slide down our windows while music plays softly in the background. I notice her fingers fidgeting but she tries to hide it. I try telling her she might have gotten a concussion but she remains adamant that she is fine. As we sit here, I have a thousand burning questions. I want to ask her if she will ever go back to her family and seek forgiveness. I want to ask if she will ever stop smoking and where she learnt her English. Most of all, I want to crack open her skull and understand how her brain works- why was everything some messed up game to her?
In the shadows of the night, as a roaming light hits her face briefly, I see a pure form of beauty in her struggle, like the lines across her face connect to form a map- an untold story of the places she had been and the things she had seen. A story begetting many stories that transcend space and time, for a woman, who I noticed, does not acknowledge time. Right then, I see softness in her eyes and feel warmth and fondness in my heart. I suddenly feel compelled to tell her about Sheila, about the day I met her, how her full head of hair had drawn my attention. I want to tell her about how I got down on my knees on her twenty-fifth birthday and asked her, in front of all her friends and family, if she would be mine forever. I want to tell her about how I started noticing the lies and secrecy when she started putting off our wedding. Then I found out on Christmas day that she had cheated on me with my classmate and was ready to leave me for him. I want to tell her it was not my first suicide attempt, and how I had intentionally thrown my baby sister down the stairs, out of some strange curiosity when I was six. I want to tell her that I had suffocated Sheila in her sleep on Boxing day because I could not stand the idea of someone else having her. I want her to know that I had skipped town ever since; but most importantly, I want her to know she had been right about the darkness in me all along.
Shakirat interlocks her fingers with mine while looking ahead. I still cannot shake off the feeling that she can read my mind. She turns towards me and leans in for a quick kiss, catching me by surprise. Then she pulls back abruptly.
“Sorry.” She mumbles and I look away, uncertain of what to feel. I turn towards her to say something but her lips meet mine instantly. It is forceful like her tongue is begging for an opening and I can taste the desperation. She pulls back and unzips her shorts. I try to pull away while shaking my head, but she gestures for me to keep quiet as she guides my finger to her pants. She runs it down her wetness till it finds an entrance, and she lets out a moan- more like a long, deep sigh of relief. I feel like I have been let in on her dirty secret seeing her this unhinged, this free. After a while, she whispers stop, then steps out of the car bottom half naked. She walks to the front and stands in between my headlights and bends over.
“Fuck me here. Now. and hard.” She says and I run out of the car like a dog to his master, and there it happens- underneath the night sky, on a full moon, at a junkyard. I cum just in time for the explosion of green and red fireworks in the sky, and as I collapse on top of her. She kisses my forehead and whispers-
“Happy New Year.”
Next morning, I wake up fully clothed in the driver’s seat of my car, parked safely off the expressway. Still dazed, I search around, but see no sign of Shakirat or a junkyard nearby. I have a lot of questions and as I look down, I see the beer stain on my shirt has disappeared. There is a half empty bottle of sepe still on the ground and my watch, which I thought I had lost during our struggle on the bridge, is still on my wrist. The injury from the jagged metal has also disappeared and I wonder what sort of witchcraft this is. Unfortunately, I notice some policemen glaring at my car, and two start to approach. I panic and start my engine.
I manage to escape, feeling relieved when I see no sign of a police chase. I wind down my windows to feel fresh air beat my face, but mostly to savour my remaining hours of freedom. I switch on my radio and right on cue the host says “Happy New Year’s Eve.” Time has reset itself and have to wonder if any of it was real, but just then- a flash of silver catches my eye in my rear-view mirror. Right there, seated on the backseat of my car was her infamous lighter.